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A Bessborough Tale: 'Some nights all you could hear was sobbing'

To this day I have never experienced the grief and despair I felt leaving my baby son. I thought I would physically break in half.

Sally

IT WAS THE summer of 1984 and I was due to start my second year of college in UCG. I had had a brief summer romance with an Irish guy I met while working over the summer in London, he was a few years older than me and when we parted at the end of the summer we promised each other we’d stay in touch. I came home to my parents’ house all ready to start second year in college. I wasn’t feeling great and realised shortly afterwards that I was pregnant.

My parent’s initial reaction was one of complete disbelief and silence. Their silence was deafening, I knew they disapproved so much of my pregnancy that I had no choice but to go away. I was constantly reminded that I had younger siblings, I was the eldest of five children. This was not a situation that they would entertain, me being at home pregnant and my youngest sister was only eight years of age. I knew pretty much what I had to do, they arranged with the college that I could postpone my second year and re-join the following year and they set up a meeting with Cura who would “look after me”; this essentially meant me being sent away to a mother-and-baby home for my confinement.

Sent where nobody would know me 

I was sent to the furthest point away from them, where no one would know me, and I was sent to Bessborough. They drove me down in October of 1984 to Bessborough mother-and-baby home which is located in Mahon, Cork. We went to the front of the house, my parents and I were brought into the parlour of the main house (the one and only time I was ever in this room) and the nuns told us all that I would be well looked after.

My parents said goodbye and left for home. I was being shown around the facilities, which were grim, it was like a mix of a school and a jail on the inside of the building, there was a courtyard in the centre which to me resembles a jail, all windows and outside stairwells, from a scene in Colditz the movie.

I was shown the laundrette where I could hand wash my clothes, and the nun who was showing me around asked me about the father of the child, I told her his religion was Protestant and that he was Irish; I had to get on my knees and say a decade of the rosary for “forgiveness”. This particular nun was very keen on changing your name when you came into the home, as an act of defiance I kept my name Sally for the whole time I was there. This set the tone of my six months in Bessborough. I shared a room with two other girls, and some nights all you could hear was sobbing coming from the corner of the room. Our sadness and grief were solely our own, it was like an inevitable doom looming and those nights were so long.

We tried to soothe each other

There were approximately 35 girls in the home when I was there, we were all in the same situation, all from different parts of the country, no one wanted us at home, and our pregnancies had to be hidden. The time was put in with reading books, typing lessons, making flower arrangements and pottery clocks. I later found out that all the goods we made – clocks and flower arrangements – were sold in Roches Stores in Patrick St in Cork, it was like we had to earn our keep. The nuns did make us do typing lessons, this was a skill we would have once we left the home. To this day I have 60 words a minute, the only one positive thing to come out of my time at Bessborough.

We spent most of our time keeping ourselves going, someone was having a bad day, we would gather and try to help and soothe each other as best we could. If someone had a visitor it kept us going for ages, they were so lucky… My parents’ lack of contact during this time, reemphasised what they wanted me to do, which was give my baby up for adoption.

The loneliness for my family was incredible. I had been the centre of attention in my own family at home, the eldest, full of life. When I got pregnant and it was like they didn’t want to know me or what I was going through. This situation had to go away, I had to go away, and my baby had to be given away. It all had to appear normal, no one could ever know.

I was terrified

Towards the end of December I started to brainwash myself about giving up the baby, I was training myself to detach, I was watching women leaving their babies every week, broken-hearted, they were utterly devastated. I had to get tough if I was going to leave my child. The nuns would regularly have the priest talk to us, about our faith and making the right decision for our children and our families, no one said you had to give up your baby, but it was totally inferred that what’s they wanted us to do.

The delivery room was on the same corridor as where the girls watched television, everyone knew when someone went into labour, you could hear the screams and we would all be terrified for ourselves and the girl who was in labour. In late March 1985, I went into labour, I was given pethidine as pain relief. I was terrified, so scared, I had never experienced pain like it. One of the nuns was a midwife and she delivered my son. He was taken from me immediately and sent to the nursery. I have never felt so vulnerable, like I was mute, my child was just taken away to another room, I was told he was perfect, when I did see him later on the next day, he was perfect.

I have never experienced such grief and despair

He was put in a nursery with all the other new babies, this was run by a deeply unpleasant nurse who would torment us new mothers, saying things like “your mother doesn’t want to feed you”, while she was feeding our babies. The nuns had encouraged us not to feed our children as this would encourage bonding and make things more difficult for us when it came the time for us to leave.

I left the home three days after he was born, I thought my heart would break, to this day I have never experienced the grief and despair I felt leaving him, I thought I would physically break in half. I know I cried for three months solid, every night I would cry myself to sleep. I think the fact I could cry saved me at the time, I could release my grief through tears.

I signed his final papers when he was six months old, I had convinced myself that it was the right decision for him.

Pandora’s box was opened

The first couple of years after he was born was a blur, I went through the motions went back to college and ended up with a degree. Somewhere deep in my soul I felt I owed my son this much, to get my college qualification. I threw myself into work, and worked for an accountant firm for ten years. I met my husband in the early nineties and we married in 1995. My eldest daughter was born in 1996 and that is when Pandora’s box opened.

I was in a private wing of a Dublin hospital being handed my perfect daughter and my brain went into overdrive, I found I couldn’t have her near me, I couldn’t hold her. I was so confused, I now had this baby, the baby I longed for and I couldn’t even stand in the same room as her. I was constantly anxious, feeling I wasn’t worthy to be near her, I would contaminate her, I wasn’t good enough, these were the wild thoughts that were flooding my mind…

Luckily for me, I was able to talk to my husband about how I was feeling, I was terrified that if I told anyone apart from him what I was thinking they would take her off me – and that would be another baby I would lose and it would all be my fault.

I had to learn to allow myself to be happy

I rang my GP when I got home from the hospital and made an appointment to see him. He put me on a mild anti-depressant for six weeks, made sure I never did a night feed and told me to attend a counsellor immediately. I started seeing my counsellor twice weekly and then slowly but surely I got down to weekly, fortnightly, etc. It was a long process, I had done such a good job brainwashing myself and living with this secret for so long, it had to be peeled back a layer at a time.

There were so many emotions and feelings that I had to deal with, regarding both myself and my parents. I learned how to allow myself to be the mum that I had always wanted to be, how to allow myself to bond with my beautiful daughter and how to cope and deal with my feelings about my son, and me as a person and a mother, and to be able to allow myself to have a happy family life.

I went on to have two more beautiful children and, each time, I put in the support mechanisms that I had learned from my counsellor to help me cope after their births. My husband was and still is a great support to me and we have built a good life together with our children.

Speaking to a counsellor was a lifesaver

Going to see a counsellor and talking about how I was feeling has helped me immeasurably, I cannot recommend it enough to other women who are emotionally struggling. Help is available from Nurture and it is truly a lifesaver.

There is not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my son I gave up for adoption and I hope he is happy and living a good life. He was a brief time in my arms but he will always and forever remain in my heart.

Every year Nurture helps hundreds of women like Sally and their families return to happy and healthy living. Their mission is to be in a position to offer support services nationwide to women who are suffering from a pregnancy and childbirth related mental health illness. Contact Nurture on Landline 01 8430930 or visit www.nurturepnd.org:

*Counselling is offered to women, partners and family members
*24/48 hour supports (avoiding Accident & Emergency Dept)
*Affordable and timely counselling within a two week time frame
*No waiting lists
*Support groups offering supports to women helping them out of isolation to meet other like-minded women experiencing the same difficulties in life (programme runs for
eight weeks, small babies welcome)
*Nurture support partners and families, too – please call if you have any concerns about your loved one.

Read: Who will chair the mother-and-baby inquiry? The Minister’s been given a list of candidates

Read: Inquiry should ‘examine all issues faced by children born out of wedlock’

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Sally

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